What Is Tofu? What It's Made of, How To Press It, and How to Cook with It
Tofu is a versatile, minimally-processed source of complete plant-based protein. Here are the different types, how they're made, and how to best cook with them!
Tofu is an affordable, minimally-processed source of protein—a wonder among plants! Invented in China over 2,000 years ago and likely inspired by Mongolia’s cheesemakers, it’s absolutely delicious once you know how to work with it.
The tofu most commonly used for cooking comes in plastic packages in soft, medium-firm, firm, and extra firm textures. This kind of tofu—and a brief segue into silken—is the one I’m going to talk about here, as it’s the most accessible, approachable, and versatile of the bunch.
What is Tofu Made Of?
Tofu is a minimally-processed food. It’s made by combining water and dried mature white soybeans (not to be confused with tender, green edamame) to make fresh soy milk, at which point a coagulant is added to help the resulting strained liquid curdle and bind together into a solid form.
That coagulant, or chemical catalyst, added is often nigari, the magnesium chloride liquid that remains after table salt is removed from seawater. It simmers in the soy milk until the curds and whey separate, after which the curds are pressed for 15 to 20 minutes in a mold and frame to remove the run-off and create a solid block of tofu.
The amount of time the tofu is in the mold determines its moisture content and firmness, which is categorized from soft to extra firm. The packaging will vary, depending on the type of tofu it is.
Tofu Types and Textures
There are five major categories that tofu falls into: silken, soft, medium-firm, firm, and extra firm. These textures are the most distinguishing features of tofu and knowing how to work with them and the best use of each are a key part of finding joyful, tasty success with this ingredient.
Silken tofu comes in shelf-stable aseptic packs, while soft, marinated cubes of tofu meant as side dishes (puy, we call it, in Fuzhouhua) for congee or rice are usually found in jars. You can also find shrink-wrapped smoked or dry seasoned tofu, and other ready-to-eat soybean products like tempeh.
Most tofu used for cooking comes in plastic trays invented by Shoan Yamauchi in 1966, which can be found in your local supermarket’s refrigerated section.
How to Dry Block Tofu (and Thaw Frozen Tofu!)
While dry and seasoned tofu come ready to eat, the blank canvas that is block or cotton tofu—nicknamed as such for its fluffy curd texture—or even silken needs a little bit of preparation.
Block cotton tofu comes water-packed to retain its freshness, so the first step is to cut a slit in the paper packaging that seals the plastic container and drain it. Cut near the edge to avoid squirting or accidentally stabbing the tofu. After that, open the package and lightly rinse it.
The next step is critically important for all tofu except silken: you must dry the tofu block! Any residual water will splatter when it comes in contact with hot oil in the pan.
- Wrap the tofu block in a paper towel, then squeeze firmly until the paper towel is saturated.
- Lay more paper towels or a clean kitchen towel on a wide surface like a baking sheet or cutting board.
- Slice the tofu into cubes or thick slices, depending on how you want to use it.
- Top with another absorbent towel or two, then press gently but firmly to extract as much moisture as possible.
Another option? Cookbook author Andrea Nguyen pours salted boiling water over the slices, the theory being that the hot water will draw out moisture for easier blotting as the salt seasons it.
You can also use boiling water to thaw frozen tofu. Refrigerated tofu is best consumed by its use-by date, but it can also be frozen for up to five months and reconstituted with boiling water. Freezing dries tofu out and makes it even more compact, but hot water helps it expand again.
Delicate, heavy, creamy, and delicious, this form of tofu is made from soymilk that has been coagulated but not curdled and is unpressed. Silken tofu retains all its moisture, and thus has a lovely, jiggly character like the barely contained yolk of a poached egg, plus the visual satisfaction you get from scooping into a fresh jar of mayonnaise.
Silken tofu needs to be rinsed very, very gently; simply running it under a faucet will smash it into smithereens. After it’s rinsed, it’s ready for eating and doesn’t need to be cooked.
Soft silken tofu is commonly used in Western cuisine in salad dressings and smoothies and as a substitute for eggs or yogurt. I grew up eating it dressed with oyster sauce, soy sauce, and a drizzle of toasted sesame oil, or as a dessert custard called doufu fa, with sweet syrup poured on top.
It also comes in firm and extra firm, which is made from denser soy milk and offers a richer body that can stand up to a bit more handling. Seek out this texture when you want a silken tofu that will be cut and suspended in a sauce, like mapo tofu.
HOW TO PREP: Rinse and drain only. Do not press and do not freeze. Silken tofu is shelf-stable in its aseptic packaging, anyway!
HOW TO COOK: Silken tofu can be eaten raw, chilled or at room temperature. Top it with a sweet or savory sauce or blend it into sauces, shakes, smoothies, desserts, and dressings. You can also batter it and deep-fry it for a hot treat that will crunch on the outside and melt and collapse on the inside.
Soft tofu has the highest water content of all block tofu and a mild, milky flavor that skews subtly sweet but is mostly neutral. It doesn’t have the same smooth, seamless appearance as silken tofu, but it is just as delicate; chunks will absolutely break off with rough handling.
Unlike silken tofu, soft tofu retain the irregular edges of the curds that were lightly pressed together to form the block, so it’s not as creamy despite its Jell-O-like consistency. This makes it good for crumbling and for swapping for vegan soft-scrambled “eggs.”
Soft tofu is also excellent in soups and stews since it absorbs flavor from the liquid it’s steeped in and provides a different mouthfeel and lighter tofu-y taste than its denser counterparts. It will fall apart in stir-fries, which makes it less than ideal unless you’re not going for whole bites. It’s also unsuitable for frying, since the high water content and the fact that you can’t fully press it dry makes it a high spatter risk for oil, which can be a real mess.
HOW TO PREP: Rinse, drain, and pat dry. You don’t want to smush or press this type of tofu or it’ll fall apart.
HOW TO COOK: Soft tofu can be enjoyed raw with a sauce poured over it, as a base for hearty sauces, and may also be blended or pureed into smoothies, sauces, dressings, and desserts. Additionally, it lends itself well to a variety of wet applications, such as braising, stewing, boiling, and simmering in sauce or soup.
And while we advise against frying it by itself, batter-dipping it then frying the soft tofu can yield similar results to the same preparation with silken.
Medium Firm Tofu
Medium firm tofu is slightly rougher to the touch and its curds are more apparent. The pores are bigger and drier and set between smooth, shiny patches. It’s still on the wetter side, even when pressed dry, so it can be prone to sagging and thus deflating. It’s not invulnerable to cracking with handling, so it’s still not ideal for stir-frying as it may break apart in smaller chunks than you’d intended.
However, you can freeze this texture of tofu, and it’s more substantial than soft tofu if you want to add body to soups, stews, and braises. Also, if you prefer a harder scramble for your eggs, medium firm tofu is better than soft tofu, since it’s closer to what would be an egg white-heavy preparation. Medium firm tofu is also a solid vegan replacement for egg salads.
HOW TO PREP: Drain, rinse, then dry and press. Medium firm tofu is strong enough to withstand pressing, so you can top it with a kitchen towel and place something heavy on it until enough moisture is extracted.
How to cook medium firm tofu: Although we’re not yet in stir-fry territory, medium firm is still soft enough to crumble. It has enough body to braise, boil, stew, and be a headliner for curries as well. Additionally, it can be fermented and, more popularly, baked. You can also bread and fry it to make popcorn tofu bites or tofu nuggets.
Firm tofu is the type most often called for in recipes, and it’s the easiest texture to find at any basic supermarket.
The curds are tight and visible, and it holds its shape very well. It’s solid, firm, and can be a bit spongy when dry. As heat tightens up the molecules, it can get a little rubbery; however, this hard-packed density makes it able to withstand nearly any kind of treatment or handling.
Firm tofu is hearty, chewy, and heavy, which makes it a great meat substitute! There’s no point in marinating it since very little can and will permeate this condensed, concentrated ingredient. (Plus, then you’re adding moisture back in along with prolonging your cooking process.) You’re best off lightly dredging the tofu, frying it by itself, then tossing it into stir-fry with plenty of sauce that will cling to the pieces.
Some people like keeping it whole for a cutting-into-meat feel, which is also an option if you want to glaze it with sauces.
HOW TO PREP: Rinse, drain, pat dry, then press hard. A heavier weight than what you’d use on medium would be fine since firm tofu is not apt to break apart and need to be sliced.
The salt-water method (a.k.a. pouring boiling salted water over diced pieces of tofu) would also be good for this texture. After it’s properly drained or dried, depending on the method you chose, you can bake or fry it before using it in a recipe. But you can also just dice or slice it up and use it as is if you don’t mind the stronger tofu flavor and aftertaste.
HOW TO COOK: This is perhaps the most versatile of all the tofu types. We mentioned you can bake it dry, pan-fry, or deep-fry it before stir-frying, but you can also grill it, stuff it, batter it, crust it, boil, glaze, simmer, sauté, stew, or put it through anything you’d put meat through.
Extra Firm Tofu
The hardest, tightest of the bunch, extra firm tofu is so hard-pressed that it’s practically impenetrable to sauces … but that’s not necessarily a bad thing! Frying it seals the surface and holds in moisture. Extra firm tofu keeps its shape, stays chewy, crisps up nicely, and is easier to dry since there are fewer entrance points for the water bath to reach the interior of the block.
It’s an excellent trade-up from firm for any dish you want to feel more substantial or hearty.
Generally, you can use extra firm tofu for any cooking application except purees, smoothies, or sauces. Try it in this Vegetarian Pad Thai, this Spicy Tofu Stir Fry, this Grilled Tofu Satay with Spicy Peanut Sauce, or our Pressure Cooker Saag Tofu.
HOW TO PREP: Follow the directions for firm tofu; it can be treated exactly the same.
HOW TO COOK: Anything you would use firm tofu for, you can use extra-firm for. Extra-firm is a cooking tofu that can tolerate nearly any method you can throw at it.